Why I am a selfish good-deed ninja, and why you should be one too

I am a good-deed ninja. Whenever I step out of the house, I keep my eyes peeled for any opportunity there is for me to swoop in and help someone. Pick up a shoe bag? Done. Provide directions? Done. Pretend to be angry at a misbehaving child so that his mother can get a moment’s peace? Done. Commit acts of random smiling and waving? Done and done.

Someone trailing me might even accuse me of being artificially and annoyingly positive.

It’s not because I’m some kind of angel that I do this (my girlfriend would say that I’m more devil than angel). I do this because it gives me a performance advantage. When I manage to help a stranger, I feel happier, sharper, more engaged with the world and my work, and in some strange way, even more capable than I probably am. I feel much more positive. And the science is out — while the numbers should give any critical reader some pause, author Shawn Achor has amassed a wealth of evidence to bolster the claim that a more positive brain gives us “23% more energy, 31% more productivity, 3x more creativity” (source).

While I’ve only just started consciously looking out for “good-deed ninja” situations, the power of a good deed for the doer, and not just the recipient, was already displayed for me in university. I often tell stories of how I used to be a nervous, anxious wreck after serving my national service (NS), when all of a sudden I was thrust into a situation where I wanted to excel, wanted to get straight A’s, wanted to be the best in the grand old National University of Singapore — in stark contrast to my army experience where I was a lowly corporal who didn’t have much to do beyond obeying orders (not much demand on the brain there). Imagine walking around school permanently on anxious high-alert, always on the edge of panic. I was that person.

Then imagine me, sitting and reading anxiously in the NUS library, with my throat constricted and my heart racing because I needed to get through my reading and I needed to get started on my essay so that I could get the A that I thought I really needed. I was sitting near one of those vending machines filled with snacks, because I spent most of the day nauseous on caffeine (got to focus!) that I couldn’t eat much beyond M&Ms and sugared peanuts.

Some poor girl then broke me out of my anxious trance, as she stood facing the machine, staring at it for an unreasonably long time. So I got up to see what the matter was and saw that she was about to have a meltdown because her snack got stuck in the machine and she had no more coins left (crisis!). I selflessly (inoticedshewasattractive) offered to buy the same snack so that hers would get unstuck, over her refusals (“eh no need no need!”).

When our snacks fell out of recalcitrant machine, her undisguised smile broke through my fog of panic. Her smile was a complex mixture of relief, gratitude, and (probably) hunger. I think the pleasant shock of the panic-fog clearing was great enough that I stood speechless, staring at her for an extremely awkward length of time, forcing her retreat from the very strange good-deed nerd.

When I tell this story, my students always ask me if I got her number (“You owe me money now, let’s swap numbers so you can settle this debt.”), but the truth is, I was just marveling at the fact that I no longer felt anxious. The attractive girl had faded from my consciousness, because I was so relieved that my heart was no longer racing, my throat was no longer restricted, and I felt sane.

A single good deed was more effective than any dose of Valium — with no side effects! This is just one example of how powerful a good deed can be, especially when we take joy from the positive effect that we can have on people through actions that cost close to nothing.

The conclusion of the larger story is a little bit more mundane, with me abandoning the quest for grades (because the anxiety was driving me crazy) for the rock band quest. If I had paid greater attention to my mental health, I probably would have ended up with a better degree than the one I have now.

This should not degenerate into empty self-help platitudes about positive thinking, but the fact is that genuinely happy people do have a neurological advantage over perpetually unhappy people — and that’s why I am a selfish good-deed ninja.


My more mature students might want to consider:

  • What makes an action selfish or altruistic?
  • Is it a contradiction if I selfishly try to be altruistic? Am I just being selfish?
  • Should I have asked for the girl’s number?

Creepy lullabies and close reading

Last night, I tried to illustrate what close reading should feel like to my student, and I used the example of our childhood lullabies. Do you remember the lullabies from your childhood? I give you my personal favourite:

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will drop,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

I vividly remember my mum carrying me as a young (and light!) child, singing this lullaby, rocking me gently with an almost-manic grin, and suddenly dipping her body and arms on the “cradle will drop” line. Giggles all round, good times for all. Thinking back now, my dad certainly enjoyed doing that too, but he also enjoyed throwing my sister and I up into the air, probably more than the “cradle will drop” thing. (Evidence currently shows that we weren’t dropped too many times on our heads.)

What does any of this have to do with close reading? This is just an innocent lullaby we sing to children to get them to sleep, right?….. riiiiight…?

Well, maybe not.

Some of us may have problems with the word “bough”, since we no longer use the word very often these days. It means “the main branch of a tree”. So far, so good. The bough breaks, the baby falls, ha ha ha. But where does the baby fall from? The treetop. The top of the tree. Look at any tree around you! That’s a fall too far for any baby to survive!

Grim, isn’t it?

And it doesn’t stop there. If we look at itsy-bitsy spider (another one of my favourites), we see arachnophobia (meaning: the fear of spiders) in grand action:

Itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.

Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.

And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

What’s a spout? Think of the little teapot, short and stout. Ah, that’s its spout (through which the tea is poured). Careful, there’s a spider there! Though, in this case it’s probably a spout exposed to the rain, which may mean that the spout is that of a water pump. Careful, there’s a spider in your water!!!!

I have to admit that this isn’t close reading, an activity that is much more involved than just thinking about what a spout or treetop is. But if you registered the shock of realising that some of our most treasured lullabies are actually quite grim and scary, that’s the kind of emotion you want to register when you read something closely. Some of the most powerful poems have that same power to shock and move us, and if you get a poem for the unseen poetry section of your exam, you can be sure that there is some kind of power hidden there. You just have to find it.


For more on close reading, I highly recommend Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry). If you don’t have time for a book (time management!!), you may find the University of Victoria’s guide useful.

Singapore’s Community Chest reveals the gut-wrenching price of poverty in 4 minute video

GP tutors may talk about inequality till their mouths run dry, but there is nothing like grounding it in a local context that really drives home what it is like to be poor. If you let a few tears fall in response to the video, take heart; you’re not depressed, it’s just your body responding to the complex mix of extreme emotions you were probably feeling. (Google “why we cry when we are happy”, if you’re curious about this phenomenon.)

The video raises so many questions. Why can’t this family afford a S$28.90 treat? Where are the children’s parents? Why has the older man lost the financial means to buy a cake? Why are we living in a society that forces some members to forgo cake?

The problem of poverty is a complex one; speak to any social worker and you will learn that poverty in Singapore is never simple. Sometimes there are gambling debts; sometimes there is addiction; sometimes there is a toxic culture in the family; sometimes there are medical problems. The family in the video is a kind of “ideal” family when it comes to poverty. They speak English, seem well-educated enough, seem to share the values of mainstream society and seem open to receiving help. It would be relatively easy to make sure that the children get the nurturing they need (education, nutrition, proper shelter, some level of mental health care) that will enable them to escape a poverty trap. In the real world, however, things aren’t so simple.

The two Chinese males clad in business casual are symbols of economic productivity in our culture. (Hmm..) We look at them and think, “Ah, those must be working men, they surely will be able to afford cake.” The video cleverly throws this into question — the old man, presumably having spent a productive life working, is now wheelchair-bound and at the mercy of the mechanisms of poverty. The choice of the filmmakers to put him in the wheelchair suggests that the family’s financial situation is due to some kind of medical crisis in their past, and it also should make us wonder: will that be the fate of the younger working man as he ages?

The sad fact is that this video isn’t unrealistic. We know that people can fall into poverty for any number of reasons, including the fact that we are all subject to economic cycles (booms and recessions) that can often render whole swathes of society un- or under-employed. Moreover, even if someone works diligently through his/her productive years, sometimes s/he can be left with insufficient funds for retirement in life’s final stages. This needs to change. When a family can’t afford a cake, guess what else they’re probably skimping on? It is possible that they are trying to save money by not visiting the doctor even when they need to, by avoiding house repairs, or by buying cheap but unhealthy food — strategies that will not only impact the children’s health and safety, but also their long-term development, behaviour, and performance in school.

The instances of generosity in the video are uplifting and terribly heartwarming to witness, but a cake is only a poor plaster over a gaping, festering wound. Yes, we need to be much more generous, and we also need to ask if we can accept a society that is structured in a way that creates this level of poverty. We may have to jettison neoclassical economics and its ill-advised focus on productivity, and go through a complete examination of our society’s conscience — tasks that will not be achieved only at the voting booth.

Still, the video carries an important lesson for us all: a simple act of caring creates an endless ripple. Let them eat cake.